Children and adults sit on and around a deck with multi-colored chairs and giant LEGOs.
The Charlotte, North Carolina, plaza after the GovPorch design installation. GovPorch

If You Build It, They Might Not Come: Animating City Spaces

Why do revamped areas remain barren after so much thought and money are put into redesigning them? A case study in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers clues.

If you live in a city, you have probably walked by a newly redesigned public space that just happens to be…completely empty. In fact, millions of dollars are spent every year renovating public spaces in an effort to attract users. So, why do so many revamped areas remain unused and unloved after so much thought and economic resources are put into reenvisioning them?

The Center for Active Design (CfAD) has spent the last four years exploring that very question in an initiative “Assembly,” that looks at the connection between public space and community attitudes and behaviors. This work recently culminated in the release of Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines, a playbook offering design, maintenance, and programming strategies.

One of CfAD’s most significant discoveries is that activation provides key elements to public space that even the most well-designed un-activated space cannot. An experience in Charlotte, North Carolina, last year provides a good example of the importance of integrating well-designed programming with spatial design.

The central plaza in Charlotte’s government district had been deserted for months. The wide expanse between government offices, the courthouse, and the county jail was eerily underutilized. Fountains didn’t work, the seating was unwelcoming, and there wasn’t much to do. Moreover, the plaza was hidden behind large cement bollards, so people just walked by.

Monica Holmes, Charlotte’s planning coordinator and urban designer, had a hunch. She believed that transforming the plaza would not only beautify the bland government district, but also improve citizens’ perceptions of government itself. Moreover, she knew that programming—or “activation”—of any new design would be key. “The link between programming and capital investment is hugely important,” Holmes said. “Installations need something that gets people off of the street so they can really reap the full benefits of the project.”

Government Plaza before design installation. (Center for Active Design)

The City of Charlotte decided to give it a try. In 2017, with an outside grant, Charlotte’s plaza was temporarily transformed into “GovPorch”—a welcoming “front porch” for the government buildings, featuring public art, deck chairs, and bean bag seating. Every Friday it was activated with live music and food trucks.

CfAD worked with the city to evaluate the effects of this plaza revamp along with the impact of activation: Did bringing play and whimsy to a public space get people off the street and improve perceptions of local government? Was design alone enough attract people to GovPorch? Or was programming and activation required?

In order to find out, we surveyed people near the plaza in three waves. The first wave was conducted before any changes had taken place, the second after only the design elements (seating, art, and play materials) had been installed, and the third, during two “First Friday” events when the redesigned space was activated with live music and food trucks.

Charlotte plaza with design installation and programming. (Center for Active Design)

We found no difference in usage or perceptions of the Charlotte government between the first and second surveys. On their own, the design elements did not have an effect. However, once the space was activated on First Friday, there was an extraordinary change: People were 23 percent more likely to think the local government in Charlotte understood their concerns, 19 percent more likely to think it was responsive to the public’s needs, 17 percent more likely to think the city cared about improving resources for kids, 16 percent more likely to think it was fair to people like them, and 13 percent more likely to think the government buildings surrounding the plaza were full of friendly employees. Respondents were also 15 percent more likely to say they were proud to live in the area.

These results indicate that design installation can have a significant and positive impact on civic trust in the local community, but only when activated with programming interventions.

So why is that? After analyzing experiences in a number of cities, we’ve identified three key factors.

Visibility

Activation can help renovated spaces be seen. This was certainly the case with GovPorch since the plaza was vast (15,000 square feet!) and design interventions were barely visible from the sidewalk. Thirty-five percent of people walking by had no idea they were even passing a plaza. When First Fridays featured music and food trucks, many people were introduced to the plaza’s existence.

Approachability

Often, a redesigned space can be intimidating and community members may wonder if it’s a place for them. For instance, Summit Lake in Akron, Ohio, offers a beautiful natural space in the middle of the city. However, many surrounding neighbors are non-swimmers and have fears of the water. Lisa King, executive director of Summit Metro Parks, knew that programming would be key in order to ensure that all members of the community felt welcome there. Working with community members, she supported activities like fishing, bird-watching and other nature-related programs. “The project has taken off like wildfire,” King said. “GED students are taking nature hikes before class, kids from the neighborhood are fishing every day. We’re thrilled.”

Flexibility

While certain fixtures of design are permanent, programming is not. As such, programming allows for spaces to be adaptable and to serve multiple functions. Gallery Alley in Wichita, Kansas turned an under-utilized alley into a vibrant place to mingle using both design (public art and bistro tables) and programming (live music, movie nights, food festivals, and art walks). When programming isn’t scheduled the alley is able to fulfill its original purpose—a public right of way.

These findings are important, considering that even small-scale projects can consume considerable resources, including planning, design, staff time, and budget. No one wants to end up with a beautiful, but desolate public space—especially when these spaces are designed with people in mind.

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